As I travel to schools and districts throughout the country, one of the greatest challenges about which I hear educators complain is the overwhelming number of initiatives. When asked to elaborate, these educators indicate there is simply not enough time to implement all they are being asked to implement, let alone implement any of it well. They report that this sense of overload can be somewhat paralyzing. As a result, they resort to doing their best to keep their heads above water and take things one day at a time, or even one lesson at a time.
As a way to address this, consider asking your staff to brainstorm and place on post-it notes the names of the various initiatives they are being asked to implement. Then, they can place these post-it notes on a Circle Map. Here is an example of a Circle Map with just several initiatives placed on it. I imagine many of you may have more initiatives than those illustrated here.
Once they have completed their Circle Map, ask them to take the post-its off the Circle Map and categorize them in a Tree Map. Do not provide them with the category titles for each of the branches of their Tree Map. Instead, encourage them to create their own categories.
Once they have completed their Tree Map, ask them what impact this activity has had on them. Did it reduce the sense of overload they had when they placed all of the items in their Circle Map? In most cases, they will report that they found the activity to be stress reducing and beneficial. Ask them to elaborate on the benefits of this activity.
Needless to say, such reports of educators drowning in initiatives, which seem to reaching near-epidemic proportions, are disheartening to hear. The matter has caused me to reflect deeply on what is driving the plethora of initiatives that teachers in classrooms throughout the country are being asked to implement. I know improved student achievement is the primary desired outcome. Therefore, the question that must be asked is whether or not this massive wave of initiatives is achieving the desired result.
For this reason, it would be beneficial to ask staff members to select one of the initiatives (especially one they do not understand or necessarily appreciate) and closely consider the reasons and desired outcomes of this initiative from the perspective of the individual or group driving it. Stephen Covey’s 5th habit, “seek first to understand, then be understood,” is an empowering exercise. They could use the Multi-Flow Map to identify the causes and effects of the initiative and include the name/title of its initiator in the Frame of Reference.
I can’t help but think that the sense of burden teachers are feeling may in fact be having an adverse effect. When one feels overwhelmed, stress levels often rise. This stress can cause the amygdala in the brain to swell, placing the stressed individual in basic survival mode and inhibiting critical/creative thinking and the ability to effectively problem solve. Additionally, such stress can result in the adoption of a risk-averse mindset. The atmosphere created by this condition on the part of the educators is infectious and can adversely affect students and their learning as well.
Since most initiatives mentioned appear to have the intent of positively impacting student achievement, it would seem that better support should be provided for educators and students in the development of effective thinking skills. Effective thinking skills are essential for successful achievement in all grade levels and content areas. Therefore, if teachers are well-equipped with the skill of identifying the type(s) of thinking required by each of the achievement-improving initiatives, Thinking Maps could be utilized in every instance to streamline and enhance the effectiveness of these initiatives.
For example, staff members could synthesize all of the thinking about many initiatives they are implementing by using a Bridge Map to highlight the primary purpose of each one. The relating factor should be “has the primary purpose of.” Once they have placed all of the initiatives on the top sections of the Bridge Map, they may identify the primary purpose of each initiative beneath the initiative on the Bridge Map.
Ask teachers to reflect on the impact creating this Bridge Map has had on them. While they may report they derived some benefit from the synthesis of the initiatives the Bridge Map offered, they will probably still believe that there are too many initiatives. They may still report feeling that they are ill-equipped to implement all initiatives well.
Next, ask them to draw a Frame of Reference on a separate sheet of paper. Inside the Frame of Reference, ask them to write information concerning their unique perspective. See the below example. Once they have established their personal Frame of Reference, affirm their feeling that there are still too many initiatives, and suggest that they select only THREE post-its and place the post-its (initiatives) in order of importance to them and add the arrows between the post-its to create a Flow Map. Then, direct them to share their top three and their order of importance with their peers. Ask them to reflect on the impact of this activity. Hopefully, the sense of overload they felt before you walked them through this series of Maps has diminished significantly. A greater sense of confidence and empowerment should result.
The utilization of Thinking Maps to synthesize initiatives will not only reduce the sense of burden educators feel, but also model for educators the near limitless potential of the Maps for organization of thought and facilitation of problem solving. Educators will experience how a deeper level of fluency with this common visual language will increase efficiency and effectiveness of all initiatives. Moreover, educators will more clearly see how the consistent use of Thinking Maps will result in attainment of the ultimate outcome of improved student achievement. This will not only be a lifesaver for educators, but will serve as a sorely needed reminder of the potential for passion and joy in teaching that caused them to choose to become educators in the first place!